Multiband Compression : let’s talk about it calmly…

“Argh! get off my master! you’ve split the bands… you ruined my beautiful mix, multiband heathen!”

“The mix was finished but we couldn’t get that damn low C note to work, after hours of processing individual channels we stuck a compressor over that frequency range and tucked it right back in, it sounds so TIGHT now!”


Hang on a minute… what’s going on? Read any mastering forum and see people slamming their heads against the keyboards at the mention of multiband compression in the context of mastering. Why the hate? what even is it? and why is it so awful?


Multiband compression is a style of audio processing where the frequency spectrum is split up using a crossover (much like a PA or speaker system), processed, and then re summed back into one signal. In a true multiband system each signal created by applying a crossover has individual parameter control, which a single separate processor available for each band.


A fine visual example of crossover
(http://www.kvraudio.com/product/crossover_by_rs_met FREE crossover plugin by RS Met)

The technical theory of splitting bands, applying dynamic control and summing back together comes loosely from broadcast technology, where you have a lot of audio and a narrow everything (bandwidth, dynamic range) due to the nature of radio broadcasting and a large range of playback scenarios to consider. A famous type of multiband compressor all types of audio engineers use is a “de-esser”. This is a multiband compressor with only one band active to edit (often the highest band or a mid band focused on the S area of the human voice, or both). This technology is also replicated in vinyl cutting, often known as a “high frequency limiter”, but essentially the same thing tuned for a specific task.

So hang on, multiband compressors are on almost everything already? so why is there mention to quite a lot of audio engineers a cue to exhale a huge passive aggressive sigh?


Well this is what I’m hoping to debunk and offer some closure on. First of all, let’s take a short modern history lesson..


The advent of the compact disc in the 1980s  pushed for the development of digital mastering (and general audio processor) technologies. One of the first true pro audio devices taken up by audio engineers was the TC Electonic M5000 digital mainframe (http://www.tcelectronic.com/m5000/). This device was a host for several different algorithms, notably it’s NON LIN reverb/delay and it’s MD2 mastering software. Although clunky and limited by today’s standards this is still a HELL of an audio processor. It’s fixed at 44.1kHz and has a complex array of pages and layers to get to what you want, but if you want to control one to three frequency areas dynamically it’s still up there with the best! trust me, until it blew up, I was using my studio partner’s old M5000 (which sat in the rank infront of me for months until I even bothered to patch it in..) on many of my most successfully bits of work!


Man I miss this thing! The big black mastering brick…
(http://www.tcelectronic.com/m5000/)

It worked great, it’s a real pro tool with the kind of design which for audio engineers makes sense and to anyone else is pointlessly baffling. 

So what happened, this sounds great right? serious tool for serious bits of work. Well… TC took this technology in two directions: the M6000 (later known as System6000, now a standard in many pro audio suites) and the Finalizer series. The latter is possibly to blame for the misunderstanding of multiband compression, or at least its marketing.


A powerful tool is damaging in the wrong hands..
(http://www.tcelectronic.com/finalizer-96k/)

Big leaps forward in the programming of digital audio equipment had happened between the MD2 development and the Finalizer hitting the market, and this allowed for… presets..

Earlier I mentioned broadcast processing and multiband, this kind of fixed processing with all the bands engaged was totally the done thing in broadcast by now, but the current multiband mastering processors from TC and also other great companies such as Weiss (see previous article on their original digital mastering processor!) forced you to engage each band on request and set up from scratch. The Finalizer, and it’s competitors such as the DBX Quantum and Drawmer Masterflow allowed you to load settings with processing applied as default. It’s worth stopping at this point before I accidentally drag these units through the dirt to point out that all these units are pro standard audio processors, I would happily work with any of them, and before you think I hate the Finalizer, I have an OG 44.1kHz Finalizer which I bought to use as a second layer of that good old predictable TC multiband on really tricky/restoration jobs.


DBX Quantum: A fiddly thing, but with some features not found in it’s competitors
(http://dbxpro.com/en/products/quantum-ii)

Drawmer Masterflow: Slightly obscure now, but you’ll find a handful of MEs singing their praises online still
(http://fr.audiofanzine.com/processeur-dynamique/drawmer/DC2476-Masterflow/)

The issue here is how the user was convinced to use these specific units. The concept of presets/wizards/whatever is something which I can’t honestly say has done anything other than damage probably quite decent sounding recordings or trick people into hearing something they’re not. Aha, so now we are back to the beginning again, the whole “trashed recordings” thing, but before we smash our heads into our keyboards let’s have a think about this.

What sounds “bad” about a really well designed crossover, with top end compression with musically selected parameters and values on each resulting band? well, nothing! So why do we hear so many depressing screwed up, phase mis-aligned, smeary, pumpy messes? Because the button was there to press, and often placed at the start of manual and in big inviting print on the unit itself…. In the late 90s there was an arms race to sell “home mastering” gear to the sudden “project studio boom” (a revolution for the good for independent music!) and everything went a bit whacky. The resulting generation of pure confusion about multiband compression can be pointed towards this in my opinion. The shame is when people get multiband processing and ALL THE BANDS IN MOVING ALL THE TIME, which unfortunately is what a hell of a lot of those presets do.


The native plugin revolution in audio created a LOT, and I mean a lot of Finalizer clones, the most popular being Izotope Ozone, a plugin which when mentioned is like actors speaking openly of “the Scottish Play”.. but again, although this thing has some bizarre features such as mastering reverb(?!) it’s a pro level processor, it suffers from its marketing and pressure to make something crazy and colourful. It’s also worth mentioning that Izotope are no fools, their RX restoration software is only rivalled by the bafflingly expensive Cedar systems!


(Amendment #1 : as pointed out by two folks, the latest Ozone, as pictured, does away with the Mastering Reverb, good work!)

The dreaded Ozone! 
(https://www.izotope.com/en/products/mixing-mastering/ozone/)

To summarise: multiband was great, then confused, now great again. The truth is it never went away, and pro mastering engineers, the guys churning out the records we all enjoy never stopped using them, they just kinda had to go quiet for a bit…

What does “Mastering for Vinyl” actually mean?

We mastering guys will often offer and be asked to perform the task of “mastering for vinyl”, almost always alongside digital audio masters of the same release (whether that is CD, digi download or both).

But what does it actually mean?

Well first of all it’s not the same as “Vinyl Mastering”! This is the process of creating a physical master disc using a format known as a lacquer disc or sometimes acetate. Historically the material used for such masters had varied, but it’s quite a different process to that which mastering engineers without a cutting lathe often offer to our clients.

The above may not come as a surprise to labels and independent artists when costing up a vinyl release. You may notice that for my mastering service I charge a 20% fixed rate for a second version of the master (i.e. one “mastered for vinyl”), which is wildly different to the price of cutting a master disc. This is as they are different processes!

So what is it I do then?

Well, the process I apply is what is actually known as vinyl pre-mastering. This involves the preparation of an audio master (often digital, but not always!) which can be cut by the engineer at the next step in the production chain. 

What the 20% extra is actually getting you is simply a version of the audio which has been QC’d (checked) for its use with the cutting engineer. This is a lot simpler than people think! Hence the % or sometimes with other engineers: a lower track rate on top.

Our aim in vinyl pre-mastering is simple: To maintain consistent translation to the next stage of production. i.e. the client loves the master I sent em to listen to on Windows Media Player and really wants to hear that, albeit with the joyful sounding limitations of vinyl, in its entire form coming out of their record player when they get the test press back. Same gaps, same loudness matching, same objective improvements in tone and imaging, if there has been from the mixing stage onwards.

A vinyl premaster is typically a 24 bit audio file containing masters for each side of the record, with additional track data where required to aid the cutting engineer.

The difference between a good vinyl premaster and an OK one is knowledge of the above mentioned limitations of vinyl… 

With digital audio we can do all kinds of crazy things, whether it sounds good or not! One of the nice things about vinyl (and perhaps why vinyl versions of recordings sometimes sound better unanimously) is the barriers to letting you go too far.

The digital master also almost always requires loudness processing. This is usually just a final push into a limiter/clipper/both which the engineer controls for transparency. What this causes though is a kind of artificially shaped harsh transient every time a loud thing happens, vinyl hates these and is wildly unpredictable in how it cuts this onto the master. Ever tried to cut a CD master to vinyl and found the top end sounds wrong, or often quite bizarre? This is probably why!

This falls into three main categories:

– Amplitude (or level)
– Frequency content
– Phase correlation 

I won’t go into too much detail on these, as they range from easy to explain (amplitude) or so complex you could do entire degrees on the subject (phase correlation). But I will say this: when it comes down to hiring someone to do “mastering for vinyl” consider this: can they have a 20 minute conversation with the engineer at the plant about the above topics and get it nailed so your record doesn’t sit in test press limbo for months? Vinyl production is a tricky game and it’s getting trickier. Having a mastering engineer who can bang out some excellent digital masters, make you a fully formed CD image AND create a vinyl premaster and tackle any thorny issues at the next stage is vital for a label taking its vinyl releases seriously!

Hopefully this helps, if anyone has any further questions you can always drop me a line on subsequentstudio@hotmail.com thanks, Joe Caithness (Mastering Engineer, Subsequent Mastering).

(shouts to Ben Hunter for proofreading!)  

Mastering Grime Music

Grime is a unique beast.

It appears to be almost completely misunderstood by anyone outside of this island we call Great Britain, both sonically and artistically. 

On one hand it’s an incredibly complex sound of crashing noises which don’t fit in any other context, and on the other it’s angry teenagers on a Playstation banging out tunes to play to their mates at school.




The reality is somewhere in between, I won’t wax lyrical on the journalism that surrounds the “second coming of Grime” (FYI it never went away, check out some stuff which came out in 2008 when Dubstep ruled the roost, so good!), but I will speak about the contrasts in how people approach the genre,

My introduction to Grime, like a lot of people was Dizzee Rascal’s first singles on XL recordings in my teens. Mostly being into punk and hip hop music at the time, but generally being a music nerd and having a passing interest in UKG the idea of Dizzee Rascal intrigued me, and for about ten minutes I hated it. I thought: “isn’t this just UKG MCing with some kinda Dancehall vocal stylings over ridiculously clangy beats?”, and then I realized that was actually an incredible musical idea and that my original response was only shock that someone had come up with something as groundbreaking (in the true sense) and original as “I Luv U”. After hearing Wiley’s “Wot U Call It?” I was hooked, and alongside the emergence of what was eventually called Dubstep this felt the first underground music I was ever around to see it bloom.




Hearing these squelches, industrial clangs, boings, detuned-to-the-point-of-atonality synths and basses (see Dizzee’s Youngtar produced Stand Up Tall!) made me hark back to playing dark and sinister games on my NES and Windows 3.1 Gateway PC (those ones with the cow skin boxes, remember those? showing my age..) as much as it sounded like the aggression and violence inside my pubescent teenage brain. 

Deeez ones!



What was somewhat shocking was the incredible range of audio quality.

Some of the best Grime sets (and even vinyl) you will ever hear are full of digital clipping, terrible mic levels and technique, feedback, crappy edits.. the list goes on.

But would Pulse X or the original Igloo instrumental give you that paranoid sense walking home with your eski hood up at 2 AM through the estates if it had that glimmer and sheen of the big US Rap stuff coming out in the mid 00s? probably not. But what happens when you drop a grime tune in the club which is literally someone tapping the scart cable off a Playstation into phono and video cables (or atleast that crammed into any DAT machine available at whatever level) and sticking it down to wax in the cheapest cutting house in London, against some of the incredibly well produced Dubstep which had painstaking hours of mastering and various mixes taken over it that came out in the late 00s?

The answer is: you do, if you dare risk it.

Sometimes dropping So Solid’s Dilemma instrumental or a Wiley Devilmix out of some kinda of super compressed synth led dubstep can be the palette cleanser the dancefloor needs, but it can also be a total buzzkiller.



So as a mastering engineer I must consider this when working on Grime tracks, considering all the things discussed above as well as the objective quality of playback across several mediums.

It’s kinda like fitting a square peg in a round hole, but this is some of my favourite music ever and I am truly blessed to be able to work on it.

Here are some considerations when mastering or producing Grime records I would put forward looking on into a future where more and more of this stuff is going to (hopefully) become real…


1. Is all the space in the mix being used? if not, is that what the producer is going for?


Listen to something as standard as Wiley – Igloo (original full instrumental), for entire sections the bass goes up an octave and there is little or no bass left. If we approached mastering with an “all sizes fit all” style we would be shouting “oh god, automate some EQ, the bass has gone! mutliband it, do something!”. But tell me when this production drops in a club that weird space that appears and re appears doesn’t make your head go funny in all the right ways?


2. Is “poor production” just something you’re musical brain isn’t trained for?


Whatever you think of Dizzee now, this is one of my favorite pieces of music ever, even though the album itself never clicked with me, the combination of Youngstar’s ridiculous beat and Dizzee at his most articulate is just so bang on. But look at the music on paper: no key, some samples are cents away from being in tune, sitting neither side of the piano keys, the bass sounds like a crashing computer. Stick that in front of some more traditional music fans and it genuinely makes you feel a little queasy, but that’s exactly why it’s good.


3. Distortion: killing the vibe or pushing it beyond? 

Most grime fans will know this video:


I would imagine the person at Propellerhead who programmed the distortion algorithm expected the sound of being pushed into ridiculous levels, let alone expect it to be one of the most sampled/copied sounds in UK dance music in the 00s and beyond. To add to the confusion the actual record (unfortunately no longer in my possession) is one of the most blown out/strangely cut things I have ever DJ’d with. But like people in the rock music world see Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, or The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Pyschocandy as exercises in the pushing the limits and therefore inspiring more defined future production styles, we can see Pulse X and similar productions as a similar thing, whether it’s intentional or not.


4. If it’s dry it’s dry.

If you whack a load of sounds into a sequencer and it sounds right, you don’t need a “room” or “ambience”. Some of the best Grime productions ever, and the one’s that really smack it on a system have all the sounds right at the front, almost completely mono. When music doesn’t exist in the real i.e. acoustic world it might not need “a room”!


5. There is no point “analogue-ing up” something which is meant to sound cold and digital!

Yeah I got those valves and transformers in the rack, but if the digital clang and grit is making the music sound edgy and exciting, there’s no point whacking some excitation on those areas and “smoothing them out”. Harmonic distortion is all about context,

None more cold!



I think I’ll leave it there. Hopefully this part philosophical musing, part auto biography, part technical analysis is useful!



Written by Joe Caithness of Subsequent Mastering. www.subsequentmastering.com

Selected Grime credits include:

In Defence of “In The Box Mastering”

It’s a strange time to be an audio engineer in 2014. Look at the racks of most pro guys in any field and it’s a mostly a mix of incredibly well designed digital plug-ins and the odd analogue processor for that more complex / non-linear audio effects. Of course, many engineers nailed their set up historically and feel no need to catch up with the zeitgeist, and in some ways these engineers with “outdated” gear stuck in that years AES catalogue are the ones I trust most…

When I started Subsequent Mastering in 2009 it was hard to gauge what I needed to kick start a little set up to learn on. On the one hand the Finalizer/Quantum/all-in-one box was still on the market (with a rapidly decreasing resale value) and on the other simple and cost affective plug-ins were overwhelming appearing at a fast pace. The idea of analogue only came to me later when I found a way to acquire tools good enough (to my ears) to make the leap from simple, easily recallable plugins to large chunks of metal which cost more than a half decent car.

I spent some time listening and demo-ing all kinds of stuff I could get my hands on: older plugins, stock plugins, the really expensive stuff (which now in retrospect seems like a large waste of money..). I made some conclusions: this stuff can sound dogshit (early ITB linear phase designs always really upset me) or absolutely brilliant (like the first time I tried to get a “competitive level” from Voxengo’s Elephant, an epiphany for me). I also made the conclusion that there is “something” missing from my tool palette, when listening to other peoples records and how far they got their tone especially, even after months of trying all this stuff, the obvious conclusion? missing the analogue stuff.

In reality what I was missing was a complex and detailed colouring tool, which didn’t have that nasty smudgy thing almost all digital emulation plug-ins seemed to at the time. So I got  a guy to build me a Sontec clone (the one that’s on all the DIY audio sites), fully stereo, fully stepped to see what happened. I was blown away, I loved it, I still love it, I cherish it’s existence. It’s been used on 90% of my masters since I got it about 4 years ago, and although it’s awesome, it doesn’t suit everything.

But what do I use the Sontec clone for? I use it for adding sound that wasn’t there, I use it for pushing something out of the mix by exciting the stuff around it. A friend of mine (Chris at Blacklisted Mastering)  told me the high shelf made it sound like the high elements were coming from behind the music into your ears, and I get what he means. So can this be matched in digital? NO! I tried to null it last night, I used DMG Equilibrium in all the modes, all the impulses, all the shapes, boosts, freqs. Nothing came close, and even the closest thing I had sounded way different when I went on to A/B it.

Hang on! Aren’t you meant to be defending plugins!? Yes! Because although the sound of MY Sontec clone couldn’t be replicated, the desired effects of me using the unit, i.e. “I want to do this abstract thing in my mind to the audio” *reaches for the knobs* can. What I desire when using the Sontec clone I can do with plug-ins now, that sound coming from behind the speakers? yep. And and engineer learning to master for the first time could totally kick ass with a plug-in if it’s the tool they learned. I would NEVER sell the Sontec, it feels like an extension of my brain! but it wouldn’t stop me mastering if I had to.

It’s also a strange time to be a plug-in designer, for years it seems sad that brilliant engineers were chasing their tails trying to make emulations of gear to get “that result”, some designers even making various versions with famous mix engineers names branded to them! See also: emulations of NEW hardware, one of which (the Elysia Alpha) I have used a LOT until recently.

But the tides are changing, the processing power has gone way beyond the days of the SHARC chip Firewire boxes (although some great plugins are stuck on these currently!) and designers in the last few years have really started to realize that if you rethink audio processing and use digital for what it can do irrespective of the past really brilliant game changing tools can be created. Guys like Voxengo, DMG, Brainworx, Fab Filter and a tonne more are developing processors that previously couldn’t exist.

It’s a bit harder to feel the sexiness from a plugin: you don’t get to unwrap it, you don’t get to take a pic of it, you don’t get to come into the studio the next morning and see it in the rack and get all excited. But if we take a step back and be more critical in our analysis of our work I truly believe it’s these processors that are making mastering progress as an art, and yes, they are plugins! anyone can buy them! and this makes some people very uncomfortable…

I believe that the feeling of joy of working with a tool you see older engineers post about their Sontec 430s and original cutting consoles is the same guys like me get from spending the evening getting deep into clicking around with DMG Equilibrium or Voxengo Elephant, for example.

I guess us MEs are kinda at a crossroads, and it causes a few online existential crises for folks: Since when did plug-ins sound good? since when did almost all the big name guys start using the same plug-in I bought for my project studio?

I like it, it’s like a kind of democratization of audio processing. There is no shame in an empty rack, and I totally vibe of guys who go full swing the other way, as long as it’s for the right reasons.

My message to new MEs entering the biz, don’t be ashamed! get those plugins, get incredibly deep into them, configure the additive flavours you desire from them, make your own presets, and when you get some money: spent it building an incredible studio! Get an acoustician in, upgrade your speakers, buy solid and long supported converters and an amazing listening space for you and your clients to enjoy working in. Don’t worry about the analogue stuff until something really catches your ear, and if you fall in love with pushing knobs and pulling faders: jump in with both feet and enjoy it! But please don’t worry about the digital vs analogue gear arms race, it’s over now, stay off the forums or take them with a pinch of salt, your wallet will thank you in a few years when you haven’t got debts holding you back from progressing your career.

Yeah you can’t match the sound of running a mix hot through an API2500 with the threshold not engaged, but that hardness and girth you love from that, it’s in the box if you look and listen too, and your clients and the end users aint gonna give a fuck.

Happy record making!

Vintage Digital Series #1 : Weiss BW102 – interview with Daniel Weiss

I have had an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for a long time. As a mastering engineer who entered the game just as native plug-in processing actually became good, I never got a chance to wrestle with the digital gear of the past, it’s all plug-ins and great converters feeding analogue units for me. So what were these units like? who built them? and with what in mind? This series will look at such units and hopefully provide some insight into how we got where we are, and what it means to use this gear in today’s studios.

Our first interview comes from Daniel Weiss, the legendary digital audio designer behind white boxes you will see a lot in mastering studios, even with the advent of incredible plug-ins, you will still see these boxes (The Gambit Series) stacked up against the Maselecs and the Sontecs and the Manleys.

Hi Daniel, thanks so much for communicating with me for this project! I don’t know what it is that draws me into “vintage digital” units, I guess it’s that the bygone eras of vinyl and analogue equalizers are still so relevant (if not more than ever), and the original CD mastering era seems to have only a few survivors. My first question is a big one, and hopefully leads on to the following questions: what led you to designing and maintaining such a system? what was your brief, and what inspired you to embark on the project?
I kind of stumbled into that. When I worked at Studer in the early 80ies, in the PCM lab, one day a gentleman from Germany came by and asked for an interface between the Sony F1 (a betamax video tape based 2 channel PCM recorder) and a Sony 1610 (a Umatic video tape based 2 channel PCM recorder). That was way before any standards like AES/EBU etc. Studer does not do such custom work, so I did that interface in my spare time. That gentleman was Ben Bernfeld who owned a Mastering Studio, called Harmonia Mundi Acustica. That was the time when the CD was launched and thus there suddenly was a market niche for digital mastering equipment. So Ben knew what he and other CD mastering engineers needed in terms of interfaces and signal processing. The concept for the BW102 (Bernfeld – Weiss) was born, i.e. a modular system with a 19 inch frame, a 24 bit bus and modules for interfacing and signal processing. Over the years we did dozens of different modules. The largest BW102 system was the IBIS digital mixing console with like 32 channels (or less of course as it was a modular system).  

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html)

In the mastering and pro audio sector you are mostly known for your Gambit series hardware (EQ1, DS1 and their varying versions), it seems like almost every mastering studio has, or has had, some shiney white boxes with black knobs lined up on their console. How much of the influence and the specific processing from the BW102 passed through to the Gambit? were lessons learned in the development of the BW102 implemented in the subsequent designs?
Yes, sure. E.g. the Gambit EQ1 uses the same low noise filter architecture as we use in the BW102 equalizer. The DS1 has the same basic block diagram as the dynamics processor in the BW102. 
The Gambit A/D and D/A are new designs though as the converter technology changed quickly over the years. The same goes for the sampling frequency converter and the denoiser / declicker.

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/products/eq1)


Ergonomics and the highest signal processing available at the time seem to be fundamentals of your design ethos, was the Penguin software and extension of this?
Yes, the Penguin software was mainly made in order to be able to automate the BW102 console with time code. In addition it allows to control several modules of the same type (instances…) thus it is a much cheaper solution than the hardware based remote control usually required for the BW102 console. The Penguin was built before the advent of Windows and is still used in mastering studios. 

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html)


I search the web for studios and stare their gear lists often, it seems this system does still appear, often it’s old school guys who mastered their trade and never felt the need to switch the gear out, but sometimes it’s 
being implemented in a modern mastering system. How easy do think the system is to use alongside say, a DAW pc or mac, some analogue EQs and Compressors and standalone high quality AD/DA?
Well, it is as simple to integrate as any other outboard equipment. The automation is difficult though. The Penguin mentioned above requires specific video cards and a computer with ISA slots to run, so that can be difficult nowadays. The hardware based remote is the alternative, but that can not be automated. Yes, there are still old and new (with young mastering engineers) studios using the BW102. We did a 96kHz capable version of many of the modules, so technically the system is still current. 

                                           (source: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html)

Leading on from the previous question, do you still sell/maintain the units? do you have people coming to you to do the above with success? 
Yes, we still sell and maintain them. Sometimes we get back BW102 systems from customers who do not need them anymore. Those systems / modules we can refurbish and sell them again.

Final question: do you see an influence of this style and era of digital standalone systems on the horizon on modern mastering studios, will people stuck in the DAW for their corrective processes get sick of clicking a mouse?
Of course with today’s computers, i.e. with their processing power, all of that can be done in the box. The success of our Gambit Series units, which we still sell despite the DAWs, is based on the ergonomics and our algorithms. Many users like the knob based user interface which is very analog like. And they like the sonic quality. Successors to the Gambit Series would have to have a comparable user interface (maybe as an option), similar sonics and should integrate into the DAW including automation. 


Best Regards,
Daniel

FURTHER READING: http://www.weiss.ch/old/102/102.html
OFFICIAL WEISS ENGINEERING SITE: http://www.weiss.ch/

Free VST Review #1 : Two Mastering/Bus Friendly EQs from Variety of Sound and Lkjb

In this post I will taking a look and a listen at two free VST equalizers which I deem suitable for mastering/mix bus duties. This will be part of a series of reviews for small plug-in designers making neat free VST plugins. There is a lot out there in the free VST world and I hope I can pick a few really special bits out for you and help improve your sound at no added cost.

I will be testing the Lkjb Luftikus Analogue Modeled EQ and the Variety of Sound Baxter EQ in this episode.

First Impressions

So I loaded the Luftikus up on a channel, no problems, not glitches. The UI is really nicely done and is a great improvement from the beta versions seen on forums last year. It’s pretty obvious what it’s inspiration stems from if you know the equalizer designs of Cliff Maag, it’s a Nightpro/Maag EQ3/4-esque design with the same octave fixed bands as the Maag EQs. The unit itself has some “modes” not found in the Maag EQs or their plug-in counterparts such as “analog” and  “mastering”.

Next I reached for Variety of Sound’s BaxterEQ. People familiar with Dangerous Music’s BAXEQ will be aware that this takes it’s “Baxandall Tone Control” style (NB: worth a google if you’re interested in further reading) and runs with it. Whereas the Dangerous Bax provides you with a neat single rackmount design with L/R on one strip, the BaxterEQ splits it into two virtual rack units and provides a Mid/Side matrix for those looking to get deeper into the stereo image of their source material. It also provides high and low pass filters for BOTH channels unlike the Dangerous Bax. This is particularly useful in mastering when the S channel is providing some useless out of phase bass or the middle image is too forward.

Field Test

 I loaded up a great, vibey yet murky and a little pokey in the high end, indie rock mix I received this month to have a look at how these things work in practice. I loaded up the Luftikus and checked the signal path in/bypassed: with all modes off it appears completely transparent, with “analog” mode engaged the signal also appears consistent. It’s not stated clearly what “analog” is actually doing, but in my experience these Maag designs do have a sonic imprint: a smooth snakey tonal adjustments across the freq spectrum, and it’s possible this is a factor in this mode, but it’s very subtle if it is! Also provided is the “mastering” mode which makes the EQ work in steps, which some people might think is useless, but us mastering guys think in blocks of gain! Speaking of gain, the further “keep gain” mode is optional here. The Maag designs produce and overall gain shift beyond a certain point, which is counteracted in the Plugin Alliance version with a gain knob (also available here), but Lkjb have gone one step further with a kind of “make down” gain when this analogue modeled phenomenon becomes apparent.

Let’s do some stuff: I felt the mix was a bit bunged up in the lower mids and lacking in the actual fundamental bass stuff, so I went in at 160 and took 1.7 dBs out and 2dBs in at 40. This cleared up room fast and clean, and uncovered some gunk a little further up, 1dB cut t 640 seemed apparent. A quick A-B showed me that the mix had been instantly improved in a wide sense and it was now time to take a look at the upper mid/high end balance. The 2.5 cut was applied, but instantly I felt the Q shape was too wide and had no control over this. I had in mind a cut in the upper mids and a boost with the AIR band (more on that later), but the width of the EQ let me down a bit here. The feature Maag’s designs are famous for is the AIR band, a super high shelf with only gain. I put in 2dBs at 10kHz, which provided a really smooth brightening to the track, bringing out the ambience and wide elements of the overheads without adding back in any of the bad stuff I took out previously.

At this point I hit a bit of a snag. I punched in the “mastering button” to see if it was doing anything other than providing steps and it rounded my settings up/down to the nearest dB, essentially trashing my settings! Something to be looked into on updated versions perhaps? Annoyingly this messed up my gain structure, which I had to go back and re address, could be a bit of a bummer to have this happen when the chain has compressors either side of the plug.

I soldiered on and took some time to sit and A/B my settings. It’s safe the say the combination of wide octave laid bands and super clean EQ modelling provided an incredibly smooth and un-distorted sound over all. For interest I pushed the AIR band up a few more dBs and took it out. Wow, that was some difference, and I dare anyone to tell me the effect “sounded EQ’d”. Shout out to Lkjb for nailing that element of the Maag design.

Time to move on so I took the Luftikus off and loaded up the BaxterEQ. Taking what I learned from listening previously I had a go at cleaning up the same program material. The first thing I did (because I could this time round) is had a listen to the S channel to see if I could clear anything up here. As I had expected there was some bleed in the low end in the room, which is a perfect storm for murky low mids. I popped the M/S matrix on and took the low cut on the S, and although this did cut some stuff, I got stuck at 54Hz. I continued on my low mid cleaning mission by looking at the shelf cut on the S channel: 2 dBs at 74Hz took out the gunk I wasn’t fond of, and auditioning back in stereo the imaging opened up quite a lot. Now I had cleared stuff up I felt I needed to focus the bass lower down, so I took the 74Hz knob, this time on the M channel and boosted it 1dB, and although this did the desired effect, it would have been nice to place it lower (an overlap with the filters would be useful!) to avoid adding to the low mids I am trying to clean up.

Moving on I addressed the top end: again I wanted to take some of the nasty forward nature of the mix and get some of the good top end stuff appearing clearer. I took the M/S approach again here, popping a 3dB lift on the S at the highest frequency available: 18kHz, and carving half a dB away on the M at 4.8kHz. This M/S push and pull stuff generally sounds more transparent than carving away with notches and dynamic EQs in my opinion, but it all depends on the width and shape of the EQ. The results were good, although I felt if I went much further with the boosts the EQ would begin to interact with areas I wasn’t keen on touching.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that the the Baxter has it’s own bypass button, which I was using within this test, and this doesn’t cut the plugin off, it simply un-engages the EQ, leaving the analogue modeled “hardware sound” of the EQ engaged. This might not to everyone’s taste, having some harmonic excitement inline whenever you use anything on the plug-in, but it’s safe to say it is very subtle.

Final Thoughts

Both of these free EQs are well worth trying, considering the price (or lack of) I really can’t see how anyone working in the mix with busses or looking to carve their mix bus can afford to not check these out. Both faithfully represent analogue devices and add features only available in digital.

The Luftikus is great for adding top end to stuff where other EQs can’t quite do it right, and is good for large swooping changes in the mid range. It is fixed in a mono channel (representing the EQ4 hardware) which makes it only dual stereo in practice, which can be not so useful when adding low end where there are problems in the S channel, it also misses a trick of adding varying amounts of AIR band to both the M and S, which would be so useful in mastering especially.

The BaxterEQ is a great representation of the classic Baxandall circuit with some neat features for buss and mastering work. It’s analogue modeled sound when no EQ is engaged might upset a few people, but it’s generally never been a problem in my experience. The added M/S matrix makes this thing very useful compared to many analogue modelling EQs out there. The freq points might be a little limited for using it on it’s own, but there is no reason why this EQ alongside a clean and flexible digital EQ and a more vibey coloured analogue (or modeled) EQ couldn’t EQ a troublesome mix.

Blown The F@#K Out! : Mastering Intentionally Distorted Music

People often talk about mastering, and mastering engineers, enhancing, improving, adding warmth or depth. But what about when audio art is created with the intention to make the listener hear rawness, distortion, hazyness, fuzzyness? These are all words we use to describe when an audio process or unit is either working incorrectly or is of low quality.
As musicians, audio engineers and music consumers we are all too aware of distortion, it’s uses and abuses and place in popular music. Rock n Roll, a style which provides the foundation for a large part of modern western popular music, is a direct result of “doing it wrong” with your gear and “playing it too hard” for example.
But what about when the recorded elements are not the subject of distortion, but the process or recording itself? How do we approach this? Do we take audio which has been destroyed to some extent and try and make it fixed again? Do we want our feedback and clipping to somehow sound “warm”? Is that even possible?
And to go one step further, how about when we are working with an audio recording where the output itself (sometimes known as the 2-bus or mix-bus) has been processed in a way which intentionally distorts the music found within?
Perhaps apt, with the recent passing of Lou Reed, one example of pioneering distortion beyond the acoustic realm is the Velvet Underground’s “White Light White Heat”, and its subsequent imitators and progressors in production value such as The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Pyschocandy”, that this discussion is being raised right now.
As a mastering engineer I used to think my job was to make audio “sound better”, after a few years of being challenged by a wide range of audio sources and aesthetic choices I realised my job is to make audio sound “right” or “fit for purpose”.
So when audio is meant to sound “bad” compared to “pop music”, what do I do? Well I do exactly the same thing I do with a pop/dance production, I make it sound the way it needs to be heard. Sometimes as audio engineers we can get a bit of an ego about our input on the music we work with, it’s an important that to curb in the back of your mind. When a track comes in all messed up on the 2bus, it’s all to easy to think “oh this is a poor production, let’s try and fix this”. Communication, as always, is the key here.
One example of this is a job where I was given a reference and asked to “make this new record, have the distortion of our previous tape demo, but the balance of a good sounding hardcore punk record”. My conclusion was that I needed to take the clean, raw premaster, balance it out so the tonal relationship felt good and then push it out of my analogue chain into my converters so the red light hardly drops. This is the kinda thing which would make some audio engineers cry, but it was the right thing to do! Furthermore because my converters are solid in tonal and dynamic response, I got that clipping sound, without too much of the bass getting swallowed up or a loss of stereo imaging.

The conclusion here is that us mastering folks aren’t here to make beautiful sounding music, we’re here to facilitate an artists vision, specifically how that vision is heard. OK I love making beautiful sounding records, delicate dynamics, shiney analogue top ends, real aural pleasures. But sometimes you gotta let it be blown the fuck out, let it hurt a little bit, give the listener that uncomfortable masochistic audio experience, if it’s what the artist wants!

Independent and DIY musicians/labels.. why bother mastering your releases?

So, first post, and it’s probably only going to make sense if I tell you a little about who I am and what I do. I live a double life, but these lives overlap as much as I can make this possible. My job, or career if you like, is working as an audio mastering engineer under the name Subsequent Mastering, a company I set up 4 years ago as an attempt to follow my dream of working with audio full time. On the other hand I co-run a DIY music space in my hometown of Nottingham called JT SOAR and play in a band with the other guys running this place called Plaids. I’d say my time is split pretty much 50/50 between the two endeavors, and it works out nicely as far as achieving a good balance in life, as audio engineering can be lonely work if you’re not working attended (I don’t).

Because of this splitting of my time between the above, I manage to get quite a balanced view of bands and artists from the DIY/indie side of the tracks, and especially how they present their music to people. I spend a lot of time listening to demos/promos and subsequently seeing these songs performed live. I am also part of a small community of DIY music promoters who are also working full time in audio industry locally and we often wax lyrical over a delicious pint of Old Rosie on our experiences working with DIY musicians.

It’s never been easier to get your music to people who might like it, brilliant inventions such as Bandcamp have made it really easy for any weirdo with brilliant ideas to reach other weirdos via the internet. The probability of your music reaching someone who really genuinely cares without having to pay someone else to find them is pretty high, and getting higher in my experience. This said vinyl; the staple format for underground music of many genres; gets more expensive and harder to source by the day, at least objectively high quality pressings we expect as consumers (NB I don’t mean “audiophile” products, I just mean not bad).

This understood, I can now pose my question: “Independent and DIY musicians/labels.. why bother mastering your releases?”, or perhaps it should read “why pay someone to..”

Let’s define mastering first, from a philosophical point of view:

Mastering is where the audio recordings become an audio product. This can be split up into a variety of tasks and thought processes, which vary in importance dependent on the outcome required and the audio supplied. These can be separated into two main categories:

1. Creating the correct output format to be replicated/duplicated.

This can be anything from making sure a track which is going to be cut to vinyl has the right amount of headroom to outputting the audio to the correct sample-rate to getting something super loud as it’s got to be competitive on Bandcamp, Spotify, Soundcloud etc…

2. Analyzing and correcting objective problems and errors in the supplied audio.

So for example: is the mix meant to be bright? it’s not because the monitoring is incorrect where it was mixed. Expecting the mix to go really loud? it can’t because that vocal is so bloody sibilant! Want that epic outro to blend into track 4 on your record? it can’t because you’ve cut the cymbal decay off.

Consider your mastering engineer to be a second set of ears and the last net to catch mistakes before it gets to the consumer. You can’t turn back, once the music is out there, it’s being perceived and judged by your potential fans/gig going punters.

So we can agree on all these things, but I hear you cry “I have ways around all these issues!”, I hear these statements a lot and I want to do a bit of mythbusting and challenge a few attitudes I consider to be bogus. I say this as BOTH an audio engineer and someone who works damn hard for DIY musicians of all ilks.

“The person who mixed it is doing us mastering (and he’s a darn slight cheaper than you too!)”

The person who mixed it CAN in theory master the release, they can set it to the right file format and export it from their computer. But what they can’t do is improve on the objective qualities of the mix or discover errors. Why? because the process doesn’t include enough variables: what about the monitoring? how can they hear stuff which has been wrong all along without changing the speakers and room it’s heard in, and furthermore the mixing engineer will mix until they think it’s perfect, it takes a second set of ears to go “woah hold on a minute, the vocal is killing that kick drum in the chorus” to which the reply is usually something like “oh crap, I didn’t notice, let me fix it and get a mix out asap..”

“Im not paying for snakeoil! I have a program on my computer which can do it, even better it’s got presets!”

It’s true to say some of these “do it all” mastering programs are pretty good.. in the right hands and ears. It bums me out a lot to think that bands will spend 700 quid on a guitar, 700 on an amp, 1000 for recording and mixing time and will happily run it blind through something and stick it out for the world to hear. A lot of this is down to mis-education I feel, and a lot of that comes from mastering engineers themselves.

Mastering is not some incredibly complicated rocket science thing. It’s actually very simple and quick, but requires a very high level of listening skills and specialist equipment, unfortunately it seems some engineers trade off this mystique, when in reality transparency yields better results in any creative task.

And possibly the point I would like to hammer home most here is that we’re not expensive! By we I mean mastering guys who work with niche/independent/underground/whatever musicians. Most of the work I do is connected to bands I am involved with, or music scenes people know I’m into. I don’t see any reason why I can’t do a better job than some dude with a 5 month waiting list and 100 dollars an hour can on your “80s hardcore punk meets 90s noise rock” band’s 7inch EP (exchange engineer and music as applicable). Objectively, in the budget of a project and against the top tier of earners in the mastering game, guys who master the more obscure or specific genres of music are “affordable”, otherwise we wouldn’t make a living off this stuff.

“Argh it’s just some little thing we’re messing about with, it’s not worth mastering”

If you’re bothering to make it, someone will bother to listen to it! why penalise that person before they have even been given a chance to make a judgement on your music. Some of my favourite music is just weird little projects people did, but man I wish that stuff sounded good enough to listen to on the train or walking through town.

I think we’ll leave it at that for now… but to sign off here are some top tips for finding the mastering engineer for your independent/DIY release:

1. Look at credits for music you both LIKE and listen to successfully in a VARIETY of environments. i.e. that album you stick on your record player after a few beers and lie in a star shape on the bed, that you also like to listen to on your headphones at work and on the bus.

2. Google the mastering engineer and send them and email. Don’t just read the prices and go “nah”, have a word with them, if you can’t get a deal out of them they most likely know someone to recommend.

3. Make great sounding records with less ballache.

I genuinely hope this helps, whack me an email on subsequentstudio@hotmail.com if you want to chat about anything in this article, or just about mastering in general.

Joe Caithness, Subsequent Mastering

NEXT ARTICLE: “Blown out to fuck”: Mastering intentionally distorted music